A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Storytellers


Seven Stories takes its lead from writer and journalist Christopher Booker’s 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. The theory is that all the stories of the world, from fairytales to grand opera, can be reduced to seven basic plots, namely, the Quest, Overcoming the Darkness, Rags to Riches, Fatal Flaw, Comedy of Errors, Journey and Transformation.

Try it. It’s fun.

Cinderella is Rags to Riches, Harry Potter is Overcoming the DarknessGotterdammerung is Journey. And Transformation. Or maybe Quest. Or Fatal Flaw. Hmm. Trust Wagner to muddy the water. But you get the general idea. Like many literary theories, there’s as much fun to be had finding the exceptions to the ‘rules’ as there is applying them. But as stimulus for a meditation on narratives, dialogues and archetypes, it’s rich in possibility.

A catchy premise, however, is just the starting point for Ensemble Offspring‘s latest creation. Stories need storytellers. And it’s not just the seven sound composers, each paired with an ur-plot, or the word composer, Hilary Bell, whose text picks up threads from the diverse works and weaves them together, or the image composer, Sarah-Jane Woulahan, whose swirling, cloudy visual gestures dance across the screen above the stage. No. These stories need real time storytellers too, and that’s the job of the seven piece ensemble whose job it is to deliver these seven nuggets of humanity.

I’ve written before about the impressive virtuosity of Ensemble Offspring, and I think it’s worth saying again. This is a group playing at a level where they can really perform.  What they do with their sonic resources — whether a cello, or an egg-shaker, or a voicestrument — is completely at the service of the story. It’s a joy to watch such a cracking band, engaging with the music, engaging with each other, engaging with the audience.

As for the work, it’s a fascinating example of many pieces making a whole. By luck or design, there is a satisfying consistency running through the seven works. Not homogeneity, mind. Individual voices come through loud and clear, from Amanda Brown’s edgy clockwork grind in Rags to Riches, to the playful, gritty invention of Caitlin Yeo’s Quest to Kyls Burtland’s dreamy but determined step in Journey. Like the unstoppable force of Sally Whitwell’s Fatal Flaw, or the unexpected transformation of Jodi Phillis’s Overcoming the Darkness. Every work uncovers new surprises, but they all retain a strong commitment – whether through catchy rhythmic patterning or harmonic cues (gotta love a modulation) — to drawing in the audience, settling us down, telling a story. They all play with us, as they should. They all explore the tension between narrative, dialogue and pure sensation.

Two that stand out are Jane Sheldon’s Transformation and Bree Van Reyk’s Comedy of Errors. Van Reyk’s three-part invention is a delicious riff on how to be funny. Of course,  a joke explained is usually no joke, but Van Reyk, in close collaboration with her performers, somehow manages to explore the anatomy of a gag without killing it. In fact, not only does she not kill it, she demonstrates that even though you’ve already laughed at an anticipated punchline, you’ll laugh again. And again. And again. Especially when the person delivering the punchline is Jane Sheldon, armed with a pneumatic car horn and a cheeky wink. It’s all timing, in the moment and in the architecture of the piece.

Finally, Transformation by Jane Sheldon who, up till now, has stayed on the interpreting side of the line. It’s perhaps inevitable, after working so closely composers to create new work over the years, that she is now creating work of her own. And why wouldn’t you? Jane’s is one of the most demanding pieces in the evening but, coming as it does towards the end, the audience are ready, listening closely. The changes they hear are subtle, tantalising even, drawing us into a deep engagement with the sound and the idea. This is what storytelling is all about.

I haven’t mentioned the visuals in detail, and that’s partly because there was so much to process on stage. Sarah-Jane Woulahan has put together an exquisite montage but in the end it is upstaged by the real time action, the sounds and words and brilliant performances. That, and the feeling that a key element of storytelling, for me, is the audience. The performers plant the seed, but the audience provides the space for the idea to grow and play. Perhaps imagination is enough.

This was a one-off performance of Seven Stories, but I’m confident that it’s not the last we’ll hear of these works. They are all strong enough to stand on their own, and as a whole it’s compelling, not to mention highly entertaining. Want more.

Thanks for reading this. Now go and read look at this. My book on Dartington Summer School of Music is crowdfunding at Unbound and I need you to support me! 


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Decoding the stars

Biographica
Sydney Chamber Opera / Ensemble OffSpring
Carriageworks, 7 January 2017

constellations_stars-1280x7201The life of scholar Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576) is an impossible tale. Obsession. Delusion. Murder. Betrayal. Invention. No one medium could do hope to do justice to the complexity of this Renaissance (in every sense, including temporal) man, so thank goodness for opera, thank goodness for composer Mary Finsterer and thank goodness for the many hands which came together to make this palimpsest of sights, sounds, words and music.

Gerolamo Cardano may be a fascinating forgotten genius but, be warned, he is not a nice man and he does not live in a nice world. The sixteenth century is portrayed as a series of suppurating pustules and ragged wounds against which the nascent discipline of medicine can but flail. Yes, there are a couple of violent deaths, and an ear lopping or two, but you are just as likely to be carried off by a tribe of microbes which, for Cardano, make up the intricate web of life on earth as the stars make the skies. His attempts to cure patients are haphazard, by modern standards, but his passionate desire to make sense of the universe is the saving grace of this deeply flawed character.

Finsterer, along with librettist Tom Wright, creates his life story as an episodic work, jerc3b4me_cardanflitting backwards and forwards in time, like a series of Holbein portraits, each coherent as a whole but studded with secrets. The non-linear narrative is confusing, even frustrating at times – meaning in spades, if you care to reflect and connect, but with a seductively fast-moving surface. There is a grief-stricken mother – Jane Sheldon, wracked with the pains of motherhood — and a child’s eye view of the universe, magically captured by Jessica O’Donoghue. There is an intricate mechanism to decipher, and multiple death scenes. And running through all of it, there is Finsterer’s delicately patterned music, repeating, evolving. I wanted to step back to take in the whole picture but, at the same time, I didn’t want to miss any of the detail.

Central to the work is the relationship between choral writing and the spoken monologue. Cardano is a speaking role — played with brilliant charisma by Mitchell Butel — while the chorus, playing multiple characters, sing and play percussion. There is scarcely any dialogue (and I wonder if it could be done with no dialogue at all to underline the different states).  As it is,  the combination of biographical evidence and vocal scoring makes Cardano increasingly isolated, a lone voice against a crowd which, by the power of music, can make voices heard individually and collectively.

The stage and music direction, by Janice Muller and Jack Symonds respectively, makes a tricky space work far better than should be possible. The balance between chorus, ensemble and speaking voice is cleverly done by a combination of amplification, stage positioning and orchestration — Finsterer is good at picking lines out of the morass of sound using an unusual timbre here or a high register there.  And Muller explores the space fully, using a distant stage, movable screens and furniture and, as Cardano and his young daughter contemplate the universe, one of the most dramatically effective uses of projection (which has been used and abused on the opera stage in recent years) I have seen.

Mitchell Butel is a mesmerising Cardano. The way he makes the audience part of the action, part of the bemused world he is trying to enlighten, is deliciously seductive. The vocal performances are consistently good, if not yet great, and the ensemble, at least on the first night, was exciting, but still coming together. And this is one of the reasons why this work needs many more performances — it’s demanding for all involved, including the audience, but with great rewards for those who listen. I’d be happy to see any one of the twelve scenes being performed in isolation, in concert performance, and encourage new music ensembles to check it out. The final scene, in particular, is an irresistible funereal dance, driven by drums and a ground base, and spiked with chaos.

Biographica is presented by Sydney Chamber Opera in association with Ensemble Offspring as part of Sydney Festival. It plays for another six performances, until 13 January. (And while it shouldn’t be noteworthy, it’s worth noting that Biographica is the first work for Ensemble Offspring’s 2017 program, a year  dedicated entirely to music by women.

It’s also worth noting that this is my first review for 2017, the first of many I hope. Reviewing is a labour of love for me, and although I’d like to think all you need is love, my writing is also improved by chocolate, coffee and your support. If you feel moved to help please take a look at my book project, http://www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary, and pledge lots of money. (I accept chocolate but at this time of year it melts).